Egyptians are voting today in an election to choose a new president, less than a year than the country's first elected, civilian leader was overthrown by the military in a dramatic coup d'etat. Just two candidates are competing, including the powerful former defense minister, in a race observers are reluctant to call democratic but that will likely shape Egypt for years to come.
Here are five key things to know about a vote that will decide the next leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation:
It’s not exactly a nail-biter
Riding a wave of pro-military nationalism following an army coup against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last summer, former defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s soaring popularity is unrivalled in recent years. The soft-spoken field marshal who spearheaded Morsi’s ouster has seen everything from T-shirts to chocolates plastered with his likeness. Supporters of Sissi credit his military experience and opposition to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood as some of the key reasons to vote for him. This January’s vote on a new constitution, and that was seen as a referendum on his rule, was approved by 98 percent of those who voted. In early polls abroad for Egyptian expatriates, 94 percent of voters cast their ballots for the ex-army chief. His sole opponent, leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, garnered just over 5 percent in the expat voting. He lost an earlier bid for the presidency in 2012, and does not have wide popular appeal.
Members of Egypt’s largest opposition group are either in jail or boycotting
Sissi’s reign was built on his willingness to depose and crush the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the decades-old grassroots group that backed the Islamist leader’s presidency. In addition to arresting Morsi and the group’s top leaders, Sissi launched a deadly raid against a pro-Morsi protest camp in Cairo, and has presided over the detention of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members. The arrests have crippled the movement politically. Still, the Brotherhood and its Islamists allies have announced they will boycott the elections — and in which just one candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi — is competing against Sissi. If voter turnout Monday and Tuesday is significantly low, it will feed into the opposition narrative that the elections are a sham. Higher voter turnout will help boost the new president’s legitimacy.
Key Sissi campaign promises: energy-saving light bulbs and ‘eliminating’ the Muslim Brotherhood
Detractors have criticized Sissi for being consistently vague about what kind of policies he plans to enact as Egypt’s president. And in fact, he never actually released an electoral platform, instead relying on Egyptians’ desire for stability. But when Sissi gave an interview to a private Egyptian television channel this month, the former general was specific about a couple of things that would take place during his term. First, he would mandate the use of energy-saving light bulbs to overcome Egypt’s power crisis. And second, yes, he would ensure the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood under his rule. But such ambiguous proposals have left many voters unsure of what they should expect from him. “We want Sissi because … we want Sissi,” said 18-year-old Norhan Said, an employee at a women’s clothing store in downtown Cairo.
There is a high likelihood of violence on voting day
While major militant attacks in Egypt have subsided in recent months, the state is still facing a low-level insurgency that may target polling stations in Cairo or the restive North Sinai region where many armed jihadists are based. The anti-state violence, including bomb attacks and armed ambushes of security checkpoints, escalated with Morsi’s overthrow and the violent dispersal of a pro-Morsi protest in Cairo in August, when security forces killed roughly 1,000 people in a matter of hours. More recently, assailants have thrown homemade bombs at police installations in Cairo. Depending on the intensity of any attack, it is unclear to what extent any violence would disrupt voting.
Egypt and the U.S. are likely to remain allies
Despite widespread human rights violations under Sissi and the government he appointed to replace Morsi, the U.S. will likely continue to furnish Egypt’s armed forces with military aid to both fight militants and maintain the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. U.S. military aid is viewed in Egypt as a benefit of keeping peace with Israel. But U.S.-Egypt relations have plummeted since al-Sissi seized power and embarked on the bloodiest crackdown in the country’s modern history. He also has courted Russia as a potential new supplier of weapons systems. But while the Obama administration has symbolically delayed delivering military aid to Egypt, Sissi’s army background and the deep relationship between the Egyptian military and the Pentagon mean the U.S. and Egypt will likely remain allies.